Last summer I went to an outdoor club night. It was thunderstorm season: the air was close and electric, the music was good and faintly baffling, the smoking area was full. My friends and I squeezed into one shared table and started making idle smalltalk with the three men opposite us – two straight, one gay, I promise this will become relevant – and at some point I tuned in just long enough to hear my friend mention Google Chrome’s Incognito Mode, and the straight man say, “What’s that?”
For the straight men reading: Google Incognito is Chrome’s privacy browser, an option for surfing which won’t keep any cookies or browser history from your session. It was introduced in December 2008, when Google executives explained that it was meant for people who share computers to do so without confusing all their cookies, or for ‘secret’ browsing, like a boyfriend searching for an engagement ring who doesn’t want to tip off his girlfriend by, I dunno, Tiffany ads popping up all over the place. Obviously, it’s mostly used for porn.
But that night, out in the muggy smoking area, the straight men leaned across the table towards us, baffled. Their eyes were very blue. Their cheekbones were very sharp. Their pink, pouty mouths were open in charming surprise.
“It’s what?” they said, while my friends and I laughed and their gay friend made a derisive face.
“That’s so useful!” one said, which I might have found sort of sweet, like watching a baby deer take its first teetering steps, if I hadn’t been busy rolling my eyes.
The straight boys’ gay friend said, bored, “It’s because straight men don’t have to worry about their porn consumption.”
This is the basis of Incognito Mode Privilege; it’s why it’s a privilege, not just another baffling Straight Person Thing, like cargo pants or still caring a lot about Bernie Sanders. The porn a straight dude consumes might be embarrassing and sure, that’s an awkward conversation with mum if she ever finds “cuck” coming up on the home computer’s Google searches, but it’s unlikely to ever end in disaster.
Since the club night, I’ve asked every straight man who wanders across my path – to be fair, not as many as the average person might meet – if they know what Incognito Mode is.
They are always slightly pleased to be told, although also baffled. “Oh, useful,” they might say, but it’s as if I’m an infomercial warning about laptops spitting out a hundred porn links a minute, anxious about something that requires no real anxiety. Incognito Mode for straight men is a lifehack, not a necessity.
Straight men’s porn habits might be funny, or weird, or – let’s be real – frankly disturbing, but they’re also the status quo. A fifteen year old boy caught looking at lesbian porn is going to be, at worst, severely grounded; a fifteen year old girl will be reviled.
No worries, he will say cheerfully, laughing off the awkward URL autocomplete that is turning your attempt to go to skyscanner into sluthub. We all do it, right? Sure, many of us do. But some of us worry more than others about what people will see, what judgments they’ll make about us, how they’ll react.
I do feel sorry for the straight men at the club, though. Not because they don’t have to face other people’s reactions to their own porn viewing; but because they do have to face their own reactions.
There is a great luxury in pretending to forget what you’ve gotten off to the very moment after you get off. I can think of nothing worse than being faced with my porn choice from last night at 11am when I’m trying to get some work done. Although at least it is never, not even once, that strange and fantastical idea of queer sex found in lesbian porn.